When you make a statement and follow it with ‘’but’’ more often than not it negates the statement before it. Here are some examples:
I really like your dress, but I think a different color would be more attractive on you. (That doesn’t much sound like a compliment)
You did a great job on that testing, but if you work harder, I bet you could do better. (That doesn’t really affirm the effort)
I know this is a hard time for you, but don’t let it bother you.
(That’s not really very empathetic)
A “but” changes, limits, reduces the power of whatever comes before it, hence the phrase, “no ifs, ands, or buts.” But that is just what we get in today’s scripture: if and but.
If you forgive others, then you are forgiven. BUT
If you do not forgive others, then you are not forgiven
That sound conditional forgiveness. I really like Jeremiah 31:34 better, says the Lord, “I will forgive your iniquities and remember your sins no more.” Jeremiah says there is no master list of sins with lines through the ones forgiven and question marks by ones not forgiven. He says all are forgiven. Period. That’s what the church calls Grace. God loves you no matter what, no ifs ands or buts.
Matthew 6 doesn’t sound like Grace. Maybe we should ignore it, cause that’s easiest to do when we don’t like a verse. It’s a verse that’s used to control and manipulate people— often a tool of domestic violence or a trap in an unhealthy relationship. When perpetrators hurt their victim, then say something like, “I’m sorry, but now forgive me because you aren’t a Christian if you don’t. If you don’t, then God won’t forgive you.” When a partner, friend, preacher, or anyone holds God’s forgiveness as a threat, there’s something wrong.
Charity begins at home, so does grace and forgiveness. When I say “home,” I’m not talking about forgiving an abusive partner at your home residence. I’m talking about “home” as in the core of your being. Being able to forgive ourselves — for not being perfect — is a greatest challenge for some of us. If we can’t forgive ourselves for not being perfect, we probably have a hard time truly forgiving others.
Grace says we don’t have to be perfect to be loved. The great promise of our faith is we are living into new life; we are being transformed. This life is about becoming who we are possible of becoming, not that we are already there. The journey means it’s okay that we aren’t perfect. A newborn isn’t potty trained that does not mean a newborn is not loved because he/she isn’t perfect. They are becoming beings, as we are all throughout our lives.
A problem we have with the notion of forgiveness and in understanding this scripture lies in our definition. What is the forgiveness that is expected of us? Let’s start with what it isn’t. That’s what Paul does when he defines Love in his letter to the Corinthians. He starts by telling us what is not love. (1Corinthians 13)
To forgive does not mean that we deny our hurt—quite the opposite. If we say, “Oh it didn’t matter” or, “it didn’t hurt.” Then there would be no need for forgiveness. Denial is not forgiveness.
Forgiveness is NOT taking responsibility for someone else’s harmful actions. It is not saying, “Oh well, you wouldn’t have hurt me if I hadn’t… I deserved it… I asked for it… I should have done better… I burned supper, so I caused you to yell at me, or beat me, or whatever hurt came about…” Forgiveness is not offering excuses for the offender, “he was tired, so he hit me… she was stressed, so she yelled.” Forgiveness is not saying anything in any way that confirms what the other person did was right or that it didn’t matter.
Forgiveness is not “forgetting” or pretending that the offense did not happen. It’s not keeping a score card of every hurtful word, but we do not forget those words or pitons which cut us to our core or wounds our soul or scar our bodies or our lives. We do not forget those things, so we need not pretend to. We will never heal if we try to do so.
Forgiveness is not to be demanded by others, and it does not happen while the offense continues to be perpetrated. It does not occur on another person’s time line. To tell someone else when they must forgive is like telling a widow when to stop grieving.
Scholar Gregory Jones notes that “one of the most offensive things Christians all too often do is to proclaim a general and abstract forgiveness without any regard for the complexities of a specific situation or a particular person’s life.”
To recap, forgiveness it not saying that our hurt doesn’t matter, or we somehow deserved it, or forgetting the pain caused to us, or telling someone else when or how to forgive, or demanding that one stay in an abusive or harmful relationship. Then what is forgiveness? How can we understand this passage in Matthew and still announce grace?
The key to understanding forgiveness lies in unlocking our limitations of the English word. Once more, translations fail to give us the nuances and depth of meaning when English uses only one word “forgiveness” where many different words are found in Greek and Hebrew-original words of the Bible.
In Hebrew there is Kaphar — which means “to cover, purge, make an atonement, make reconciliation, offer forgiveness” and there is Naga, which means “lifting up carrying away” and there is salach which means to “forgive or pardon.” In the Greek of the New Testament there is aphiemi which means to “let go” or “release.” In nearly all the cases of examining these nuances of words in scripture, it is God who does the forgiving— the blotting out— the erasing of the offense, the sin. It is God who forgives and forgets sins (Jeremiah 31:34). Those words that mean “covering”, or “lifting away” of a sin, or removal of it— those words are not used in relation to human being actions. The word that is used to describe the human act of “forgiveness” is aphiemi which is to release, to let go. It has nothing to do about the offender’s actions— we humans are not the ones to deal with the offenses of others. It has everything to do with our own wellbeing. We cannot forgive the sins of another; we can (in time and by God’s grace) let the person go — release the pain they cause in our life — no longer allow them to have control over our wellbeing — release them back into God’s realm. Releasing or letting go of our offender is our step towards healing for ourselves. When we are able to release them, they no longer hold us back from moving on to healing, they can no longer bring the heavy burden of rage or anger into our life and our heart.
If we are to release them, then what about reconciliation. We want reconciliation. We want people to get along and be friends and stay married and be in unity. Reconciliation is a beautiful hope and vision and goal that we work towards. Reconciliation is another sermon. It’s another time. Reconciliation is a different step than forgiveness. Reconciliation comes after the truth-telling. It comes after we have found safe space, after we have worked through the anger and pain, after we have processed and prayed, then the letting go may come upon us as a gift of God’s grace.
Out of the depths of our pain and our past, we can call out to the Holy and Divine One who resides in the center of our being. From the safety of community, we are held through the grief and rage of our deepest pains. In faith, we trust that God’s Spirit will move through us and meet us in Grace and heal us in Love.
May it be so.
1 Majorie J. Thompson. Companions in Christ: The Way of Forgiveness. Upper Room Books. p. 61.
For more information on domestic violence and the church, read:
Pamela Cooper-White. The Cry of Tamar: Violence against Women and the Church’s Response. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2012.